Graphitic Electro-catalytic Fuel Cells

By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21

Figure 1. A new catalytic fuel cell addresses the limitations of platinum-based fuel cells.

Figure 1. A new catalytic fuel cell addresses the limitations of platinum-based fuel cells.

For decades, climate scientists have touted wind, solar, and nuclear energy as alternatives to fossil fuels, which, due to their affordability, nonetheless remain an attractive avenue for big oil companies. Recent studies have demonstrated that fuel cells, electrochemical cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, have potential to replace current energy sources. These novel forms of energy are characterized by high efficiency, low emissions, and low costs of production.

The limitations of current fuel cells lie in their high production costs. A primary component of most fuel cells is platinum, a relatively expensive catalyst that drives the conversion of hydrogen into electricity. In their latest project, researchers at the University of California addressed this problem by developing a new catalyst that works just as well as platinum for a fraction of the cost. The scientists, led by David Kisailus, used a technique known as electrospinning, a method that forms thin sheets of carbon nanofibers containing metal ions like cobalt, iron, or nickel. They heated the ions, which produced nanoparticles that drove the catalyzation of carbon into graphitic carbon. When the nanoparticles and the carbon that did not turn into graphite were later oxidized, they created a porous and efficient network of metal oxide nanoparticles distributed throughout the compound. Analysis of this formed product evidenced its ability to catalyze the hydrogen-to-electricity reaction just as well as current platinum-carbon systems. Two additional bonuses were that the researchers created this compound at a fraction of the cost and that the graphitic nature of the carbon fibers increased its strength and durability.

The development of this new fuel cell addresses the current deficiency of expensive platinum-based fuel cells and contributes to the future of clean energy production through inexpensive means.

References:

  1. H. Tang, et. al., Electrocatalytic n-doped graphitic nanofiber – metal/ metal oxide nanoparticle composites. Small 14, (2018). doi: 10.1002/smll.201703459.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/alternative-auto-automobile-battery-110844/
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